Odd as it may sound, agriculture’s future in the US depends increasingly on seed grown in the Willamette Valley. Annual ryegrass and crimson clover seed are two mainstays in the cover crop revolution, wherein fallow winter acres in the Midwest are being repaired instead of ravaged.
The revolution began as a casual, tradeshow conversation between two farmers 15 years ago, one an Oregon grass seed grower and the other a dairyman from Ohio. The dairyman said: “That annual ryegrass is something else. You guys ought to market it better in the Midwest.” The Oregonian, who was promoting tall fescue seed at the Kentucky tradeshow took note and began digging into the idea. Until then, annual ryegrass was worth very little per pound, added into blends strewn onto parklands and roadsides in the south to prevent soil runoff in the winter.
Now, with drought and hypoxia common in our vernacular, cover crops have become a cause célèbre in the agriculture industry. Regulations now require cover crops in some places…to keep soil nutrients from leaching into lakes, rivers, bays and the Gulf of Mexico. Federal agencies pay farmers up to $100/acre for planting cover crops. The practice is uniformly heralded by an unlikely coalition including the USDA, the EPA, Ducks Unlimited, the Environmental Defense Fund and Monsanto corporation! The acreage planted in cover crops continues to double and triple each year (an estimated 1 million cover crop acres planted in just the past 5 years); meanwhile, growers in the Willamette Valley have seen the price of this “commodity” crop double in the past couple of years as surplus has turned to scarcity.